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Why Propaganda About Generational Warfare Is Dangerous and Wrong

Understanding what makes generations tick reveals a great deal about the world.
 
 
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Throughout history, there’s always been generational tensions. They can be seen in the phases and arc of each person’s life, and in society in the newest music, books, inventions and values that people embrace. Astute psychologists not only say that these generational tensions are normal and healthy, but that they unfold like the seasons—on a individual level over a lifetime, and across society as the decades turn into historical eras.

You might think that understanding what makes each generation unique, and how those factors end up shaping historical challenges would be of endless interest and concern to parents, educators and politicans. Instead, what we’re seeing today is a rising wave of ill-informed and ugly generational warfare mongering. Led by people such as billionaire investor Pete Peterson, who has long wanted to privatize Social Security, they are trying to incite anger and jealousy in younger Americans by erroneously suggesting that older Americans are stealing their futures.

Newcomers to this bandwagon include MSNBC’s Abby Huntsman, whose commentaries seek to foment Millennial anger; Pew Research Center special projects chief Paul Taylor, who told NPR while hawking his book on the coming Boomer-Millennial clash, “We’ve got to rebalance the social safety net so it’s fair to all generations;” and even Salon.com, which writes headlines like, “Waiting for a millennial revolution: Could baby boomers’ worst nightmare finally come true.” The list goes on.

“Igor Stravinsky once wrote that every generation declares war on its parents and makes friends with its grandparents,” said generational change historian Neil Howe, quoting the early-20th-century composer in a 2012 commencement address. “Yet again that happens.”

Generation Gaps

To assert that generational tensions are rising; that Baby Boomers and Millennials are on a collision course; and that the generations are the same—all “ leeches,” as the National Journal’s 34-year-old Jim Tankserley put it in a piece attacking his father and the Baby Boomers—is intentionally dark or profoundly ignorant. There have always been generation gaps, as people transition from their childhood, to adolesence, to adulthood and to older age. Ask any psychologist about age-appropriate behavior and you’ll get an earful. 

But sensationalizing generational warfare is not just shallow. The implications get serious when it becomes a political tactic for segments of corporate America seeking to privatize Social Security, which would generate billions in fees but leave tens of millions of needy seniors worse off. Social Security now accounts for 90 percent or more of the incomes for more than a third of Americans age 65 and over—a figure that’s only going to grow.

Telling young people they will get nothing because seniors are getting too much is factually incorrect and a giant distraction from understanding today’s retirement security crisis. It’s also wrong to blame current economic woes only on Baby Boomers, although the presidencies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed—such as launching a war of choice in Iraq, or deregulating Wall St. before the Great Recession. Look at the ideas and people behind those policies, especially on economics. Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand all predated the Boomers.

It’s also unwise for older generations to prey on the young from a psychological perspective. Why? Because psychologically healthier people in their middle and senior years move into a nurturing phase of their life. They give back to younger people; they don’t hype fears to enrich themselves. Magazines like Psychology Today are filled with articles discussing these issues, such as why the Generation Gap persists and what are the normal stages of human development. But there’s more to it when other historical perspectives are brought into the discussion. That’s where this topic gets really interesting.